How one company orchestrated a talent war between Twitch, Mixer, and YouTube

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
Photo: Epic Games

Loaded is the name of a gaming talent agency, but it’s also an apt adjective for the streamers under its management. That’s because Loaded is threatening the Twitch monopoly by inducing competition into video game streaming and pitting tech giants head to head for the biggest gamers in the world. Ninja? Loaded. Shroud? Loaded. CouRage? Loaded. DrLupo, TimTheTatman, Lirik? All Loaded clients.

And those are just the ones that have signed exclusive deals since Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ widely publicized move to Mixer on August 1st. The rest of the Loaded roster is a who’s who of the most famous faces on Twitch. But how much longer will these names be synonymous with the Amazon-owned streaming platform? “These announcements will continue to happen,” says Loaded founder Brandon Freytag. “We have a whole roster of talent. Naturally we want to continue what we have been doing.”

Back when Freytag founded Loaded in 2016, he never could have predicted his agency would have been at the center of a competition between tech’s largest corporations. “I was certainly going to disrupt the space,” Freytag says. “In the sense that the influencer world is so new and no one knew what was going on. Early on, I knew I was going to disrupt things. What I was going to disrupt, only time would tell.”

For most of this decade Twitch has enjoyed a monopoly on the English-speaking streaming market. Ever since the Ninja deal, that monopoly has been under fire. Microsoft’s Mixer kicked off the competition. Ninja was joined soon after by Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, a former Counter-Strike pro whose 6.45 million Twitch followers made him the third biggest channel behind Ninja and Fortnite star Turner “Tfue” Tenney. Losing two of the three most followed streamers on the platform made it clear that no channel was off limits. Jack “CouRageJD” Dunlop, a former Call of Duty caster whose voice can be heard on the Fortnite World Cup broadcast, went to YouTube in November.

Ninja and Shroud at TwitchCon 2018.
Photo by Robert Reiners / Getty Images

“We were looking for people that had an established presence on the platform,” says Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt, global head of gaming for YouTube. “When you look at someone like CouRage, here’s a guy with two million subscribers on YouTube. We see it as investing in one of our big creators on the platform.”

Other streamers outside of the Loaded umbrella also signed new exclusive deals. Cory “King Gothalion” Michael, a popular Destiny streamer, and Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler, a deaf Fortnite player in Faze Clan, both chose Mixer. Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang, a famous face in Hearthstone who transitioned into auto-battlers, surprised many by going to Facebook Gaming.

Twitch didn’t waste any time protecting its monopoly. Three more Loaded streamers in Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, Timothy “TimTheTatman” Betar, and Saqib “Lirik” Zahid all signed with Twitch on the same day in December. Throw in two more non-Loaded streamers in Fortnite players Nick “Nickmercs” Kolcheff and Nicholas “Nick Eh 30” Amyoony, and Twitch actually signed more big names to exclusive deals than any other platform. Twitch declined to comment on this story.

Losing any major streamer is a blow to Twitch. But the numbers haven’t reflected the newfound competition — at least not yet. In 2019, Twitch lost just 2 percent of the streaming market share, dropping from 75 percent to 73 percent, according to data provided by StreamElements and Arsenal.gg. YouTube also dropped from 22 percent to 21 percent, while Facebook Gaming and Mixer both climbed from 1 percent to 3 percent. “Competition is good for anything,” Betar says of the rise of other platforms. “It causes companies to push the envelope. If there wasn’t any competition or a driving force then things could get stagnant. It’s a win / win.”

“What the numbers tell us is that while all of the platforms are growing, the newer platforms are gradually taking away market share from the older ones,” adds Doron Nir, the CEO of StreamElements. “Even with big influencer deals, there has yet to be an overnight success in this space, because building a successful streaming platform takes time.”

These platforms are in it for the long haul. Yes, Microsoft having a new Xbox this year likely helped push the company to target Ninja, the former Halo pro. And Google will certainly want streamers using the cloud-based Stadia platform on YouTube. But these platforms had been targeting a challenge to Twitch’s reign for a while. All it took was a big name to pull the trigger.

Ben “DrLupo” Lupo
Photo by Matt King / Getty Images

“There’s just been this perfect convergence of all of these big tech platforms having live gaming streaming,” says Youtube’s Wyatt. “Two years ago, Mixer is barely top of mind right? They’re starting to be a huge success. You see Facebook Gaming really figuring their product out. You look at YouTube, growing the platform, seeing the success of live gaming and wanting to invest in that.”

The battle for top streamers is only beginning, according to Freytag. And his agency has plenty of ammo. How about Jaryd “Summit1g” Lazar, a game-agnostic personality who was top five in hours watched on Twitch in 2019? Or Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore, one of the most accomplished Fortnite players? Brett “Dakotaz” Hoffman, AnneMunition, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham, and JonSandman all command big communities in their respective games. There are even journalists (Travis Gafford), broadcast hosts (Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere) and singers (Jordan Fisher).

Loaded started with Freytag donating $5 to streamers to open up a dialogue. Coming from the e-sports world after spending the last six years at GoodGame — the company that built e-sports organizations Evil Geniuses and Alliance into powerhouses — he saw streamers being taken advantage of by brands, the same way e-sports players were a few years before.

“When I first started Loaded it was about these influencers that were valuable, and they didn’t understand their value,” Freytag says. “Early on there were a lot of situations where brands were making a bunch of money and talent didn’t get anything except a free product.”

So how did Loaded go from sending $5 donations to being the matchmaker between tech giants and the biggest names in gaming? One key moment was the acquisition by Popdog, a new startup from Alex Garfield. Previously the mind behind GoodGame, Garfield left Twitch and immediately brought on Loaded, as well as the e-sports arm of Catalyst Sports & Media and streaming analytics company Noscope. “Popdog just added value to Loaded,” Freytag explains. “[Alex Garfield] brought together great minds who had been in the space for a long time and this company wouldn’t be in the place it is today without him.”

But Garfield’s history with Twitch is complicated. He sold GoodGame, an organization he had been building for 15 years, to Twitch in 2014. Two years later, he quit. “It’s on me for being foolish enough in 2014 to sell my company to somebody who told me that an exit would mean empowerment and not negation, but that doesn’t excuse any of the things that happened subsequently,” Garfield tweeted recently. Garfield declined to comment on this story.

Jack “CouRageJD” Dunlop
Photo by Eric_Ananmalay / ESPAT Media / Getty Images

While the trigger for this tweet was a redesign of Evil Geniuses, it’s clear his time with Twitch was far from smooth sailing. Now, as the owner of Loaded, he is mounting the biggest challenge to Twitch’s market share the company has seen since the site was called Justin.tv.

Popdog’s team is filled with ex-Twitch employees. Garfield left Twitch in 2016. Colin DeShong, Popdog’s co-founder and chief creative officer, left in 2017. Nick Allen, Loaded’s SVP of e-sports and partnerships, was the former VP of e-sports at Twitch. Max Wink, Antonio Javier, Marian Rudzynski, Isaiah Schloneger, and Dustin Lakin are all Popdog or Loaded employees who worked at Twitch just a few years ago. Is this an attack on Twitch? Not necessarily. It’s a bunch of former employees breaking up a monopoly of which they saw the inner workings. Plenty of GoodGame employees are still at Twitch, but there is no doubt they are making things difficult for some former co-workers.

In the end, competition was important. Twitch has struggled with moderation features and properly distributing punishments. Remember when Ninja left the platform and somehow porn showed up on his old channel? While Twitch still controls the market share, and a sentimental place in many gamers’ consciousness, newfound competition will force the company to adapt.

“Competition breeds innovation,” says Josh Swartz, the COO of Popdog and one of the “great minds” to whom Freytag alluded. “When the system is a limitless supply of content creators and one demand, one bid market, it’s not a great recipe for innovation and health. It’s great for the monopolistic demand side platform.”

That was the goal Loaded was founded on and the one it still embodies today: streamers are being taken advantage of, let’s make sure they aren’t. In five years, that’s gone from brands leveraging free product for a spokesperson to breaking up a billion-dollar monopoly held by one of the biggest companies in the world.

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Comments

"Competition breeds innovation" but live streaming is a ‘winner takes it all’ market because of communities and the way people connect and interact.

It’s like Facebook and Youtube, it’s very hard to compete against them once there is a leader.

Even Youtube which is much bigger and known than Mixer is failing at competing vs Twitch on live streaming.

"Competition breeds innovation" but live streaming is a ‘winner takes it all’ market because of communities and the way people connect and interact.

It’s like Facebook and Youtube, it’s very hard to compete against them once there is a leader.

Such is the nature of competition under capitalism – a tendency towards monopoly. You don’t compete to compete – you compete to win.

That said, for now, everyone is in full competition-mode when it comes to live streaming for gaming. And that at least should produce some increases in the quality of these platforms, at least in theory. Until it collapses back into a regular non-competitive sphere again.

Actually Facebook and Youtube are perfectly representation of how competition breeds innovation. Both companies weren’t exactly pioneer in their respective industry, they entered into a new and highly competitive market that was flourishing with the introduction of Internet at first. They compete by adding different innovative features to their platform to beat out their competition to become what they are today.

Another example with be Intel, when AMD is pretty much disappeared from the market couple years ago, Intel barely made any significant improvement on processor tech. They made minor improvement to power consumption and speed, and called it "innovative". Now that AMD came back with an impressive processor, Intel shows off their mobile data tech, new die size, new architecture design, etc. These are all examples of "competition breeds innovation."

"Competition breeds innovation" doesn’t necessary mean a constant change in market leaders. It only means competition is required for companies to continue to improve, a continuous process that describes how a market can grow.

It’s also about interoperability and standards.

The point is that you can replace an Intel CPU with an AMD CPU because their instruction sets are compatible. Competition is possible because you only have to change the CPU.

Facebook took over because you can’t connect in a compatible way to other social networks.

Email (SMTP) is universal nowadays because it was invented and largely used before private companies took over the Internet. Video chat wasn’t largely used before and so today we don’t have a universal video chat system or even an universal instant messaging. Apple has FaceTime, Facebook has Whatsapp and Messenger, Google has Duo, etc.

While it’s fine to have different apps to call different friends it’s harder when you want to group things among friends when everyone is on a different incompatible system. That’s why Facebook took over. People went where their friends were, not by their own choice or the intrinsic quality of the platform.

You can today innovate and invent a better ‘social network’ system than Facebook but you won’t get traction unless you can move whole groups of connected people at a time. it’s not impossible but take time (for instance a generation of new users) or lot of money.

For Youtube and Twitch it’s about audience and access: creators put their content on YT because its where they have more chance to get more views and viewers come to YT because its where there is more content. If one could link and search other video platforms from every other video platforms that would lead to good competition but who would do that ?

In some case, regulators (states) must intervene and impose some kind of anti-monopolistic systems or standards so that competition has a chance.

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